Dominionism is the New Religious Freedom

About Frederick Clarkson

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image.  The herald of this new understanding is—ironically, as I will discuss below—a Washington Post commentary by historian John Fea, titled:  “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  The Post’s publication of Fea’s piece follows years of both scholarly and journalistic tip-toeing around this elephant on the table of American public life – a dynamic modern theocratic religious and political movement that prior conventional wisdom notwithstanding is not fringe.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny’s Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Fea, who chairs the History Department at the evangelical Messiah College in Pennsylvania, matter of factly discusses the influence of “seven mountains dominionism” on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – who may be the most openly theocratic candidate ever to be a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.  Perhaps just as remarkably, the Dominionism advocated by the likes of the Cruz family is wrapped in a claim that religious freedom is under assault in the U.S.

As I reported in the recent report, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right:

“I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared before a raucous crowd of some 7,000 Southern Baptists in October 2015.  “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”

Unsurprisingly, Cruz features this claim at many of his presidential campaign rallies. This is the new normal.

But of course, Cruz’s notion of religious freedom is all about creating religious exemptions to the legal requirements to recognize the civic equality of LGBTQ people, and the rights of people seeking their sexual and reproductive health care, as well as the rights of people – including many Christians – whose religious views are different than those of the Cruzes and their ilk.

The term “Dominionism” was first popularized in the 1990s by researchers, including Chip Berlet, scholar Sara Diamond, and myself, who needed a term to describe the political aspirations of Christian Rightists who believed that they have a biblical mandate to control all earthly institutions –including government – until the second coming of Jesus. But the idea of conservative Christians gaining political power sufficient to take dominion over society predated our use of the term by decades.

The two main schools of Dominionist thought include Christian Reconstructionism, founded by the late R.J. Rushdoony, which advances the idea not only of the need for Christians (of the right sort) to dominate society, but institute and apply Old Testament “Biblical Law.”

The other, closely related form of Dominionism is advocated by the Pentecostal  New Apostolic Reformation, which exuberantly advocates for Christians to “reclaim the seven mountains of culture”: government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.

The religious vision and political aspirations of Ted Cruz and his father Rafael are widely known in conservative Christian religious and political circles and are being discussed in his home state of Texas.  So much so, that reporter Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman wrote last summer about how Raphael Cruz was compelled to insist, “We are not talking about theocracy.”  But Fea reports that the Cruzes are close to Christian Nationalist author, historical revisionist and longtime Texas Republican leader David Barton, who declares that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation but has fallen away from this foundation and must be restored to avoid punishment from God.

Fea writes:

“Anyone who has watched Cruz on the stump knows that he often references the important role that his father, traveling evangelist Rafael Cruz, has played in his life. During a 2012 sermon at New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas, Rafael Cruz described his son’s political campaign as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The elder Cruz told the congregation that God would anoint Christian “kings” to preside over an “end-time transfer of wealth” from the wicked to the righteous. After this sermon, Larry Huch, the pastor of New Beginnings, claimed Cruz’s recent election to the U.S. Senate was a sign that he was one of these kings.

According to his father and Huch, Ted Cruz is anointed by God to help Christians in their effort to “go to the marketplace and occupy the land … and take dominion” over it. This “end-time transfer of wealth” will relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.

Rafael Cruz and Larry Huch preach a brand of evangelical theology called Seven Mountains Dominionism. They believe Christians must take dominion over seven aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. The name of the movement comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

Fea also notes that Barton, who runs the Keep the Promise Super PAC that supports Cruz’s campaign, shares this vision:

“Barton’s Christian nationalism is a product of this theological approach to culture. Back in 2011, Barton said that if Christians were going to successfully “take the culture” they would need to control these seven areas. “If you can have those seven areas,” Barton told his listeners to his radio show, “you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents and even the world.”

This is remarkable, in part, because a few years ago, journalists and scholars who wrote about Dominionism found themselves facing a smear campaign by, among others, writers at the same paper in which Fea’s commentary appears. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and then-religion writer Lisa Miller were part of this national effort to discredit the idea that Dominionism was a real thing or that even if it was, that it was of much significance. This despite the fact that then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) had made his de facto presidential campaign announcement at a massive prayer rally organized by leaders of the movement for Seven Mountains Dominionism, and that then presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachman’s (R-MN) mentor at law school was John Eidsmoe, a prominent Christian Reconstructionist theorist, (who now works at the Foundation for Moral Law, founded by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.)   Perry’s campaign later imploded, (for reasons other than the Dominionism controversy) and Bachman’s campaign never gained traction, but the episode certainly prefigured current events.

Now, some four years later, former Gov. Perry has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. Cruz has won the Iowa caucuses, and The Washington Post has published a major article about the Seven Mountains Dominionism of Sen. Cruz and his father.  A great transformation in American politics and religion, once pooh poohed by established interests (which also denounced those of us who recognized and wrote about its importance) is now accepted as uncontroverted fact.  And the attack dogs of the various political establishments are not yet snarling.

Frederick Clarkson is a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. He co-founded the group blog Talk To Action and authored Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.